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Raptors blow great chance to win championship

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TORONTO – Kawhi Leonard drilled what Fred VanVleet would call an f-you 3-pointer, giving the Raptors their first lead since the first quarter. Toronto fans burst into a frenzy. Leonard drove for a basket. The arena erupted. Leonard pulled up for another 3-pointer. The crowd somehow got even louder. Leonard turned a drive into a short pull-up jumper. It was pandemonium.

Raptors 101, Warriors 97

Already up 3-1 in the NBA Finals, Toronto appeared to seize control of Game 5 with three minutes left. Leonard scored on four straight possessions to cap a 12-2 run. Kevin Durant had already exited with an injury. The Warriors looked like they were running out of gas.

The Raptors’ first championship appeared imminent.

But Golden State closed the game on a 9-2 run to steal a 106-105 victory. The reversal was quick and jarring. A stunned fan base fell quiet. Just like that, the celebration was dashed.

Toronto had a 94% chance of winning Game 5 when up six with 2:59 left, per inpredictable.

Teams have lost 13 potential championship-clinching games since 1997, as far back as the NBA has play-by-play data. Only the Spurs’ Game 6 loss to the Heat in 2013 had a more devastating blown lead. Up 3-2 in the series, San Antonio had a 99% chance of winning the title when leading by five with 23 seconds left, per inpredictable. But Ray Allen hit a huge 3-pointer, and Miami won in overtime then took the series in Game 7.

Here’s every lost potential championship-clinching game since 1997, sorted by inpredictable’s peak odds for the losing team:

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Situation Odds Final Series
2013 G6: SAS 94, MIA 89 (Q4: 0:23) 99% MIA 103, SAS 100 MIA 4, SAS 3
2019 G5: TOR 103, GSW 97 (Q4: 2:59) 94% GSW 106, TOR 105 TBD
2010 G7: BOS 49, LAL 36 (Q3: 8:24) 85% LAL 83, BOS 79 LAL 4, BOS 3
2005 G7: DET 48, SAS 39 (Q3: 7:44) 76% SAS 81, DET 74 SAS 4, DET 3
2016 G7: GSW 87, CLE 83 (Q4: 5:37) 72% CLE 93, GSW 89 CLE 4, GSW 3
1998 G5: CHI 36, UTA 28 (Q2: 0:04) 71% UTA 83, CHI 81 CHI 4, UTA 2
2013 G7: SAS 11, MIA 4 (Q1: 6:46) 63% MIA 95, SAS 88 MIA 4, SAS 3
2016 G5: GSW 18, CLE 13 (Q1: 5:33) 63% CLE 112, GSW 97 CLE 4, GSW 3
2005 G6: SAS 51, DET 48 (Q3: 9:38) 61% DET 95, SAS 86 SAS 4, DET 3
2008 G5: BOS 62, LAL 60 (Q3: 8:26) 55% LAL 103, BOS 98 BOS 4, LAL 2
2010 G6: BOS 6, LAL 4 (Q1: 9:55) 54% LAL 89, BOS 67 LAL 4, BOS 3
2000 G5: LAL 1, IND 0 (Q1: 11:42) 52% IND 120, LAL 87 LAL 4, IND 2
2016 G6: GSW 0, CLE 0 (Q1: 11:37) 51% CLE 115, GSW 101 CLE 4, GSW 3

The Raptors still have two chances to eliminate the Warriors – Game 6 Thursday in Oakland and, if necessary, Game 7 Sunday in Toronto. Most teams in the Raptors’ position have won the series. Golden State losing Durant tilts the odds even further in Toronto’s direction.

But if the Raptors don’t win one more, the end of Game 5 could haunt them for a long time.

When a retired Michael Jordan showed up, dominated a Warriors practice

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It was the winter of 1995, major league baseball was on strike and Michael Jordan — at that time still a member of the Chicago White Sox organization — refused to be a scab and cross the picket lines.

“Mike was thinking about coming back (to the NBA), he was getting that itch again, it was a lockout in baseball, and he just wanted to play some basketball,” NBA legend Tim Hardaway told NBC Sports.

The Last Dance documentary covered how Jordan was secretly taking part in Bulls’ practices at that time. What it didn’t cover was the time Jordan flew out to California to see his friend, Rod Higgins (a Warriors assistant coach), and absolutely dominated a Warriors practice.

“It was kind of embarrassing for a guy to take that many months off then to come into our practice and dominate the way he did,” Hardaway said. “But of course, he’s MJ.”

Warriors players tell the story on The Sports Uncovered podcast, which launched today by NBC and takes a unique look at some of the most significant moments in sports. Like Jordan saying, “I’m back.” You can listen to the podcast below or download it at Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your pods.

Jordan was always looking for a test, and the Warriors at the time provided one: Hardaway was one of the game’s great scorers (but was still coming off a torn ACL) and trash talkers, and Golden State had the game’s “it” up-and-coming player in Latrell Sprewell.

Hardaway takes the story from there.

“[Jordan] and [then Warriors assistant coach] Rod Higgins are really good friends, he just came to visit Rod and said, ‘Hey, Rod, you think [Don Nelson] would let me just come to practice and with y’all?’ And Rod asked him and coach was like, ‘s ***, why not, of course.’

“He just wanted to see where he was at, where his skills was at — and of course they was still there. The same skills, without much rust, that he left with. He was practicing with us, and I came up and was egging him on, ‘Let’s see what you got, s***, let’s see it.’ He said, ‘Alright, now, I’m still MJ.’ And I was like, ‘You had guys throwing balls at you, you been out two years, I heard you been shooting around but this here, this is the real deal now, you got to come and lace your s*** up.”

“It was him, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, some other point guard, against me, Sprewell, some other guys, and man, we was playing for like two hours, and I wanted to go some more because he was bustin’ our a**. He wouldn’t let Sprewell dribble the ball at all — he kinda knew exactly what Sprewell could do, what he couldn’t do, his weaknesses and his strengths.

“It was like he never missed a beat, man. He was out there shooting fadeaways, dunking, playing defense, getting through screens, denying, jumping through passing lanes. It was a little rust, of course, but once he got going each game he got stronger and stronger, his timing got better, you could just tell. He was kinda tired at the end, but it was something to see.”

Hardaway, always the competitor, didn’t want to stop.

“I was kinda upset because I think his team took it more seriously than our team,” Hardaway said. “But he came in and put on a show in practice…

“He said ‘I can play all night, but you all have a game tomorrow and I don’t want to wear you out.’ I was not playing that much anyway so I wanted to get as much run as I can.”

Find out more about that legendary practice, and Jordan’s return, on The Sports Uncovered podcast.

 

NBA veteran Jason Terry takes job as assistant coach at Arizona

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Jason Terry played four years for the legendary Lute Olsen at Arizona, winning a national championship in 1997 and averaging 21.9 points a game his senior year. The Jet went on from there to play 19 years in the NBA, winning a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2009, and he was part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team.

Terry had moved into the front office side of the business and was serving as the assistant GM of the Texas Legends, Dallas’ G-League affiliate. Now, however, he is jumping back to his alma mater, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

This is a smart hire by Arizona and head coach Sean Miller. High schoolers going to a major D-1 school all have NBA dreams and having a respected NBA veteran who can say “this is what it takes” on staff is a big plus. Besides, Terry was a smart player who knows the game and had a mentality suited to coaching.

For Terry, he’s back in a place he likes, he’s young (42) and has a world of options ahead of him.

Scott Foster says it’s going to be different officiating without fans in building

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The noise from 18,000 people can cover up a lot of sounds in an NBA arena. So when a back-bench assistant coach yells “bulls****” after a call he doesn’t like, the official never hears it and the game moves on.

Not when NBA games restart in fan-less facilities in Orlando in a couple of months. Without those fans, referees are going to get to hear that coach. And a whole lot more.

It’s going to be weird for referees in Orlando, just like for players, veteran official Scott Foster said recently on NBA TV.

I know I don’t want everything that we normally say to each other going out. But normally we’re all in a professional manner out there. But it is going to be different. There’s going to be some assistant coaches that we haven’t really heard from before sitting in the second row that we’ll be able to hear now, so there’s going to be some adjustment there. And then I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.

But it’s definitely going to be a different thing. I’m definitely looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a really unique experience for the referees, players, coaches, everybody who’s going to go through this.”

It is going to be unique. Everybody is going to hear everything, and that is going to be very different from most nights when coaches have to go to hand signals because it’s too loud just to call out a play. It’s going to lead to some awkward and tense moments.

Everyone is going to have to adjust to the new reality, and that includes the referees, too.

 

Report: NBA group stage could include 24 teams

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Bulls guard Zach LaVine
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The initial report on the NBA resuming with a group stage presented a 20-team scenario. There’d be four groups with five teams each – one from each tier of the current standings:

  • Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
  • Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
  • Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
  • Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
  • Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs

Teams would play each other team in its group, and the top two finishers in each group would advance to an eight-team tournament (effectively the second round of the playoffs, though without conference splits).

But that format could apparently include four more teams.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

In brief, per several sources who have seen the league’s proposal: The NBA could take 20 (or 24) teams and divide them into groups

The simplest way to expand to 24 teams would be adding a sixth tier then forming four groups of six. That’d mean adding:

  • Tier 6: Suns, Wizards, Hornets, Bulls

Bleh.

The more games the NBA holds, the more money the league will make. But the more people involved, the more risk of someone contracting and spreading coronavirus. It’s a fine line, and the league has sought a middle ground.

Phoenix, Washington, Charlotte and Chicago strike me as too lousy to include. Those teams are well outside the normal playoff race, and there’s no good reason to believe they would’ve made a late push.

In this environment, they might have shot, though. Coronavirus increases variability. Players have had differing access to resources and differing motivation to train during the hiatus. Once play resumes, positive tests could be scattered randomly. Would anyone view the Suns, Wizards, Hornets or Bulls as deserving of a berth in the eight-team tournament? If one of those four teams qualified, that’d probably just show the setup was flawed.

The fairest way to set the playoffs is with 20 teams, depending on structure. Resuming with just 16 teams wouldn’t be that far behind. The highest financial upside comes with all 30 teams, but that seems infeasible.

Setting the line at 24 teams seems like the worst of most worlds – including four bad teams that wouldn’t generate much interest but would threaten to disrupt everything else.